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Famine, Disease and the Irish

MEDICINE, DISEASE AND SOCIETY IN BRITAIN, 1750 1950

1 Great Famine in Ireland

2 Impact in Britain

Focus on famine and the immediate post-famine years, 1845-early 1850s

On the 27th of last month [July] I passed from Cork to

Dublin, and this doomed plant [the potato] bloomed in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest. Returning on the 3rd instant [of August] I beheld with sorrow one wide waste of putrefying vegetation. In many places the wretched people were seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and wailing bitterly the destruction that had left them foodless. Fr. Theobald Mathew, cited in John ORourke, History of the Great Irish Famine (McGlashan and Gill, Dublin, 1875), p. 152.

In fields, as the coach passed, he could see cowering

wretches, almost naked in the savage weather, endeavouring to grub up roots that had been left in the ground when the crop was dug In front of cottages you would sometimes see half naked children leaning against the fence for they were too weak to stand - their limbs fleshless, and their faces a sickening hue. Louis J. Walsh, The Next Time: A Story of Forty Eight (M.H. Gill and Sons, Dublin, 1919), pp. 155-6.

Massive humanitarian and demographic implications

turning point in Irish history. Around 1 million Irish died from starvation and disease during the Great Famine. 2 million Irish left Ireland during and in the immediate aftermath of the Famine. The population of Ireland dropped by 20-25 per cent between 1845 and 1852. The Irish population continued to decline, halving between 1841 and 1901 from 8 to 4 million (in the period 1785-1841 it had doubled from 4 million to 8.2 million).

Great Famine 1845-50


Autumn 1845 the potato crop was struck by a virus

(blight). Government social provision inadequate food supplies, work schemes, assisted emigration and poor houses proved inadequate. The blight returned each year until 1849. The British administration was accused of responding ineffectually, resulting in a surge of Irish nationalism.

The famine grew more horrible towards the end of

December 1846, many were buried without inquest nor coffin. An inquest was held by Dr. Sweetman on three bodies. The first was that of the father of two very young children whose mother had already died of starvation. His death became known only when the two children toddled into the village of Schull. They were crying of hunger and complaining that their father would not speak to them for four days; they told how he was as cold as a flag. The other bodies on which an inquest were held were those of a mother and child who had both died of starvation. The remains had been gnawed by rats. Cited Cormac O Grda, The Great Irish Famine (CUP 1989), p. 35.

Emigration to England
2 million Irish emigrated during and in the

immediate aftermath of the Famine. The effects of Irish immigration struck all ports with Irish connections e.g. Liverpool and Glasgow, The influx caused a massive strain on welfare and financial resources. In 1847, 300,000 Irish landed at Liverpool. The condition of the Irish who arrived was in many ways as bad as those who stayed in Ireland.

The streets of our town present an alarming and

lamentable appearance, being literally crowded with famishing and half-naked strangers from the most distressed parts of Ireland hosts of squalid beings are induced to embark on board filthy hulks, .suffering from famine and sickness during this tempestuous season, are almost beyond human expression cast as most of them have been, brutally on our shores, emaciated and in many instances diseased Bristol Gazette, 25 February 1847.

Disease and the Irish


The Irish were believed to add vastly to the

unhealthy state of industrial towns and cities bringing disease and poverty. Irish were closely associated with dirty habits and unsavoury behaviour crime, violence, drinking & prostitution. Famine Irish crowded into the worst areas of Liverpool cellars and lodging houses. The Irish were inextricably linked with disease especially typhus (Irish fever) and cholera.

The air was thick with damp and stench. The vaults were

mere subterranean holes, utterly without light. The flicker of the candles showed their grimy walls, reeking with foetid damp, Beds were huddled in every corner; In one of these was a man lying dressed, and beside him slept a well-grown calf. Sitting upon another bed was an old man, maudlin drunk, with the saliva running over his chin, making vain efforts to rid himself of his trowsers, and roaring for help Morning Chronicle series 1849. Reprinted J. Ginswick (ed.), Labour and the Poor in England and Wales, 18491951, vol. 1 (London, 1983), p. 78.

Borough of Liverpool, Mortality Map of Cholera, 1865

W.S. Trench, Report of the Health of Liverpool during the Year 1866

Borough of Liverpool, Mortality Map of Typhus, 1865

W.S. Trench, Report of the Health of Liverpool during the Year 1866

Disease and the Irish


Typhus spread mainly by the faeces of the body louse

and was closely linked with overcrowding and filth. 1 Jan 31 March 1847, 181 people died in Lace St, which had an almost entirely Irish population. Temporary fever sheds and hospital ships were set up to deal with the typhus outbreak. The cholera epidemic of 1865 was attributed to the death of an Irish woman linked to Irish funereal custom. At an expense of 1,500 cholera sheds were built in Liverpool accommodated 100 patients.

Conclusion
The task of public health and welfare authorities in

Englands towns and cities was largely crisis management. Immediate impact of public health measures was undermined by the scale of Irish immigration. The Irish tended to be viewed and described in racial terms stereotype of the ignorant, dirty and primitive Paddies.